Originally created 01/06/02

Budget double-cross



It's almost a law of nature: Government can only grow. It can never shrink.

That surely seems to be a natural law in Augusta, where property taxpayers are getting double-crossed by certain Augusta Commission members (they know who they are) who see the city as a job program rather than a service agency.

What happened Wednesday at the commission meeting is Exhibit A for why people are moving from Richmond County to surrounding jurisdictions. Augusta commissioners decided to put a moratorium on a planned reduction in force that would have cut 28 full-time jobs and eight part-time city jobs.

They also increased property taxes again, adding another .18 mills to the 1.55 mill hike already approved last month. And they warned they may come back and approve yet another mill increase.

Before all is said and done, it's going to be an incremental budget bloat the likes of which Augusta has never seen. At this rate, the mill rate will creep back up to the original 3.2 increase proposed in December - a 50 percent property tax hike.

Commissioners are understandably concerned about laying people off during a recession, but for months they have seen this budget crisis coming and have done nothing. Commissioners like Marion Williams and Andy Cheeks wheeze about how the budget wasn't tackled earlier, but know full well that the November election put the kibosh on intellectually honest budget talks.

The current situation is not exactly a surprise. And, as much as layoffs seem unkind during a recession, increasing property taxes during an economic downturn is not a better solution.

The commission could take a lesson from the Augusta Aviation Commission. To its credit, the aviation commission approved a work force reduction of nearly one third before Christmas, in response to changing conditions created, in part, by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

That was not an easy decision to make, but the airport could not afford to keep its staff of 98 and the commission acted swiftly. Nearly 30 jobs - 30 percent of the work force - had to go. The Augusta Commission approved the Aviation Commission's cuts quickly and without discussion.

Turning back to the Augusta Commission and its 2,700 employees and $351 million budget, it's hard to imagine that it can't trim 30 jobs. If the airport can trim 30 percent of its work force, the city can trim 1 percent.

But when department heads were asked to make cuts, some of them found cuts that would be the most politically unpopular, thereby raising alarm among community activists, who have now put pressure on commissioners to restore those programs. Neat trick, and one of the oldest in the public administration book.

We have a few more ideas for the commission, which has so far resisted previous suggestions for cuts:

Eliminate the commissioners' salary for a $120,000 savings.

Reduce some workers' hours to 30 hours per week.

Refinance bonds to capture 4 percent rates, saving as much as $100,000.

Contract out mowing and landscaping.